Kids and Politics

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

When the Speas family tuned in to the Summer Olympics, the constant campaign ads that have largely defined the 2016 presidential election polluted their viewing pleasure.

"The ad buys were so extensive, it was hard to ignore them," said mom Jenny Speas. "You see the negative ads on television, you hear them on Pandora, you see them on YouTube. And being in Ohio, it's even worse," given its swing-state status.

Though political ads are a typical part of any presidential campaign, this year's tussle between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican opponent Donald Trump is anything but typical.

Name-calling seems to have sunk to a new low, with passions fervent-and often unfiltered-on both sides. Even C-SPAN recently added a three-second delay on its call-in shows to police potty-mouth viewers.

The current political discourse is hardly the lesson in tolerance and respect many parents desire to teach their children.

"My big concern is it's hard at their age to discern that there's two sides to the story," Speas said of her sixth- and seventh-grade sons and third-grade daughter, who are students in the Upper Arlington City School District.

"It is a particularly caustic campaign," said Cynthia Buettner, an associate professor with Ohio State University's Human Development and Family Science program.

"It's very unusual that we have a national candidate saying the kinds of things that are getting all of this coverage," Buettner said, referring to Trump's freewheeling style and use of what some political observers categorize as insults.

Think your children aren't noticing? They may be more tuned in to politics than you think, said Dr. Rebecca Baum, a Nationwide Children's Hospital specialist in developmental and behavioral pediatrics.

Baum said a survey found "around 75 percent of kids who felt like the election would make a difference in their lives. We might be tempted as adults to think, 'Oh kids aren't interested in politics.' " But their exposure to it appears to indicate otherwise, she said.

So how do you talk to kids about the deep divisiveness that has defined much of this presidential campaign, and even some Congressional races?

Their age may influence that. "If they're little, I would try to protect them from it. Be cognizant of what they are watching on television," advised Buettner, adding that public television may be a better viewing option to avoid the abundance of political ads.

The approach also may depend on their personality, added Baum. If your child has an anxious disposition, for example, exposure to all the campaign rhetoric may cause additional worry.

With older children, it's beneficial to have family conversations about what the candidates are saying and how that meshes with your values, Buettner and Baum said. These talks can help children develop critical-thinking skills.

Teaching them about democracy and the political process can provide a helpful context for how they view campaign ads, Baum said. By explaining the subjectivity of these ads to children, they can be better prepared to objectively evaluate their messages.

"It can be an opportunity for kids to really use their critical-thinking skills," she said. "You can talk with them about, 'What did you learn from this ad? Is it something you believe?' It may even be a good time for parents to share their political views."

For her part, Speas wants the candidates to spend more time talking about the value of compromise and negotiation-skills, after all, that children need to learn as they grow into adulthood. "Nobody is saying anything about how we can work together," she said.

Some of that can be attributed to today's culture and the instant availability of information that substantiates a person's own views, Buettner said. "Long gone are the days when families had one television in the living room," she said. "I think we are to a place now where people can personalize everything."

Speas said she and her husband, Dave, have made a habit of taking their children along when they vote to familiarize them with the process. Their differing political views haven't created a house divided. "I'm a raging liberal and he's a middling conservative. And all is still harmonious in our household," she said with a laugh.

To help children learn more about democracy and the workings of America's political process, Baum recommended parents go to and the article called "Talking Politics: What to Say to Your Kids."

Additionally, she said, the Public Broadcasting Service offers excellent online resources. Go to and